November 17, 2010
The Social Psychology of the Salem Witch Trials
The events that took place in Salem, Massachusetts in 1692 have had historians scrutinizing over the causes for years. There have been several theories about how the situation became so out of control. The haunting story is well known in America, taught to our youth and has been the focus of numerous forms of media. We are familiar with the story but unfamiliar with the origin of its beginnings. The role of religion and the presence of mob psychology were the primary catalyst behind the Salem witch trials.
There are several other terms that could replace mob psychology such as group think, group control, social psychology. Social psychology is termed as a branch of human psychology dealing with the behavior of groups and the influence of social factors on the individual. (Donohue) “An individual is subjected to a more powerful control when two or more persons manipulate variables having a common effect upon behavior”. (Skinner 323) The psychology behind this simply states that two people are more influential than one and four people more influential than two, etc. In the case of the Salem witch trials, this is extremely evident. Having started with just two young girls from the same household and to grow into a state wide panic at such a fast rate supports this idea.
In 1692, Salem was a Puritan village outside of Boston. The puritan teachings and beliefs were deeply revered and a way of life for the followers. The preacher of the church was Reverend Samuel Parris. His sermons were fiery, emphasizing on spiritual warfare between the saved and the dammed. (Norton 18) Before the trials began, Parris preached a series of sermons about the first verse of Psalm 110: “Sit thou at my right hand, till I make thine enemies thy footstool.” (Norton 18) His particular style of teaching emphasized on the vast differences between “us” and “them”; “us” being the saved and “them” being the dammed, thus instilling fear in the congregation and giving him control of his followers. To put it in a better perspective, David Hackett Fisher wrote concerning Puritan religion “Anyone outside of or contrary to that church was an agent of the devil… It was the responsibility of the church to help such a person by introducing him to confess the indwelling of an evil spirit and free himself. If he did not confess, it were better he be killed, lest he be a vehicle through witch the devil contaminate others.” (LaPlante 134) With this being the Puritan mindset, it would be common to fear the repercussions of not conforming to the rules and standards of the religion. Some religious leaders use the fear that sin will keep you from Heaven and that only the leader could save you from damnation. (Skinner 353)
The Puritans were on a crusade against evil and those who practiced witchcraft. (Schnapp, Tiews 133-148) Samuel Parris was not the only religious figure who was preaching these messages at the time. Cotton Mather was a very well known and prestigious minister at Boston’s Old North Church. He firmly believed in the practice of witchcraft. His father, Increase Mather, was extremely influential as well at the time. Both had published works about evil in the very real presence of witchcraft. These, as well as other writings were available to the public and influenced public thinking. Cotton Mather’s first book length publication was Memorable Providences, Relating to Witchcraft. This publication was based on his experience with the Goodwin family. Their children became “possessed” and Mather was personally involved in the children’s deliverance. (Hill 20)
Eighteen months after the Goodwin trial in Boston, Samuel Parris’ young daughter and niece began exhibiting the same strange behavior. Having read Cotton Mather’s book, he feared the worst for the children. Once examined by Dr. Griggs, and finding no plausible reason for their...
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